Randa Abdel-Fattah published her first book, Does my head look big in this? in 2005. I was immediately drawn to it because of the hijabi girl on the front cover, especially because I had insights into what it’s like to put the hijab on from my own Muslim female friends. The book didn’t disappoint, and today, Randa has published a number of YA and children’s books, as well as columns on racism, multiculturalism and Islam. She is currently doing her PhD (exploring everyday multiculturalism and racism in Australia) and released her first adult’s (or chick-lit) novel, No Sex in the City, last year. Randa took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about her writing career and how it crosses over into her interests. Thank you for joining us at Wordsmith Lane, Randa.
Tell us, in a nutshell, how you got your start as a wordsmith.
Writing a book called, Ronald, in year six. It was blatant plagiarism of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, except Ronald (unlike Matilda) was the anti-hero. I even traced Quentin Blake’s illustrations. My teacher loved it and invited me to read it aloud to my class.
Did you write your entire manuscript before shopping it to agents, or were you approached?
The first book was a long work in progress. I wrote the first draft when I was about fifteen and sent it to every publisher I could find. It was rejected. I rewrote the draft about 8 years later. I then sent it to a manuscript assessment service to ensure I would have a polished manuscript. I then approached YA agents and was very fortunate to be accepted by Sheila Drummond. I felt I would have better luck if I had an agent than if I were to send an unsolicited manuscript to the slush piles on publishers’ desks.
How has having an agent [Randa is represented by Sheila Drummond] enhanced your career?
I don’t think I could have done this without my agent. Putting aside the fact that having an agent enables you to protect your rights and negotiate from a position of knowledge and experiences, having an agent also means I can get on with what I love doing– writing– instead of the tedious business of contracts, accounting etc. Even though I’m a lawyer, I still can’t stand the ‘business’ side of being an author and contracts make me shudder!
Do you ever have days where you miss law, or are you living the dream?
I rarely miss practising as a lawyer. I still think like one though, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. My personality really is split between the analytical lawyer and the creative writer, although the writer in me dominates. The only thing I miss about law is the regular income!
I’d love to hear a little bit about your PhD project at Macquarie University. Do you think this will open up more avenues for your work as a writer?
I’m researching people’s attitudes and feelings about Islam, Muslims and multiculturalism in Australia. My fieldwork has already inspired an idea for a YA novel and I am planning to write it once the thesis is complete. I couldn’t handle the stress of doing both simultaneously. Also, I think I’ll be able to write more honestly once I’ve completed my research.
Does my head look big in this? was such a great read for me. I am about to release a book on growing up in Sydney from the perspective of a Lebanese girl and I am curious – was it something close to your heart writing about a teenage girl’s experience of putting on the hijab for the first time, especially knowing that you had thousands of girls who would relate to your character and not wanting to let them down? How did you balance that with being true to the fictional character as she is in your head?
I can honestly and sincerely say that I did not think about my ‘Muslim’ audience when I wrote the book. It really did start as a cathartic process as a teenager– something I was writing for myself, to help me ‘come of age’ as a Muslim hijabi. When I approached it again as an adult, I came to the writing process with more maturity and experience and took pleasure in the craft of creating characters that I felt represented experiences and personalities I wanted to explore, rather than me trying to tick off a checklist. I think I had an advantage because I had lived through Amal’s experiences to a degree, and so I felt I could write authentically. That conviction probably saved me from feel pressured to write as a ‘representative’.
One of my favourite parts was the blurb, which including an excerpt where Amal goes to confession and tells the priest, ‘I’m Muslim’. Although I am not Muslim I could relate to her sentiments in more ways than one. It’s hard being a teen, let alone a teen from a minority group who had copped flak in the press because of the actions of a few. Do you feel that your books, the YA ones in particular, have opened up the readers’ eye a little more and shown them that Muslims are normal people with normal struggles, and Muslim kids are ordinary kids?
I hope so. That is what my readers tell me and I feel humbled to have been able to inspire that kind of insight in them. Some of my books (the ones that deal with identity and prejudice) do fit into that grander narrative of ‘humanising the other’ and trying to invite readers to see the world from a different lens. However, if that was the sole objective of my books, and if that kind of activism drove me to write, my books would have fallen flat because nobody wants to be preached to and I don’t want to be a preacher. I’m also terrified of the kind of ego that kind of self-thinking about my work could develop in me. I don’t want to see myself as this virtuous educator, so to speak. If I ever sound that way, knock me out please! I hope I have more respect for my readers than that. I’m not trying to devalue the issues my books raise– issues I am so passionate about that I quit law to throw myself into them even more! I guess it’s more that I don’t want to be a writer of issues, I want to be a story-teller. I think there’s a difference. I love that being a writer means you grow and develop with every book. I’ve learnt that when I sit down to write, the main pleasure I derive is not from how I might change my readers, or how I might contribute to generating a more subversive story, but the actual craft of writing: the games I can play with words; the way I construct a story, laying foundations, layering here and there, the interior and exterior design; watching the characters I create evolve into independent people in their own right, sometimes doing things on the page that leave me speechless, wondering how I arrived at a scene. Honestly, that’s my fix.
You’re often called upon in the press to be a voice for your Australian Muslim community. How does that feel? Was that something you expected from the outset of your writing career? How has the community reacted to your work beyond the writing?
I love that you say ‘a voice’, not ‘the voice’ or ‘community representative’. That’s a refreshing insight into the fact that no one voice can speak on behalf of over three-hundred thousand people and that says it all for me. I try to express my views and thoughts and do so as an individual, rather than somebody attached to any organisation. The vast majority of feedback from Australian Muslims is wonderfully supportive and constructive. I had the ‘activist/writer’ persona hat on before I started writing novels so the roles have been compatible.
I also quite enjoyed No Sex in the City. I thought Esma’s observations about dating were so funny, and was in stitches imagining some of the scenarios with the suitors that didn’t speak English as well as Esma. What was the transition like in writing for adults as opposed to teens? Or was it seamless? Did you like it more? Have more free-reign with what you could say maybe?
I loved writing No Sex in the City because I relished the chance to do something subversive (which might sound odd in a sentence with the words ‘no sex’ in it!). What I mean is that I liked the chance to inscribe my own interpretation of chick-lit onto that genre but also to create strong, female characters that don’t define their identity solely in terms of meeting ‘the One’. If I had to choose between writing for adults and YA, I’d pick YA and children’s fiction any day. I love writing about the lives of younger characters, especially those on the cusp of adolescence.
What were some of the struggles – and the joys – that you experienced with your first foray into publishing?
Struggles: I was heavily pregnant on my first book tour. So most of the photos and footage remind me of swollen feet and a puffy face! (I never saw myself as one of those glowing expectant mothers).
Joys: Until today, the feel of a book in my hands or on a bookshelf with my name on it sends tingles down my spine. Not for one second do I take this blessing for granted. I feel unbelievably blessed to have realised my dream.
What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt as an author?
Ignore hindsight. Don’t judge your writing, because each book is a reflection of who you were at a particular moment in your life.
What advice can you offer to those who are interested in a similar career path?
Persevere. Join writing organisations, enter competitions, ask people who aren’t related to you to read your work for feedback.
Ten in the Hot Seat:
Describe yourself in one word: Nostalgic
Biggest accomplishment to date: 12 books in 8 years. (Accomplishment or serious caffeine addiction? You be the judge.)
You wish you wrote: High Fidelity (but I couldn’t. Not even one line of that work of genius.)
Can’t leave home without: My phone.
One thing you are currently writing: Fourth instalment in my new children’s series, The Book of You.
First thing you wrote: A story based on my life. I was five. There was a cliffhanger about a boy called Billy coming to the house on the last page. Until today, the story is unresolved and I have no idea what I was talking about.
Addicted to reading: It goes in waves. Currently, Peter Temple.
Top spot on your goals list: Exercise more.
If you were a character in a novel, you’d be: The Hobbit. Because I love food, home comforts, friends and family, and often underestimate myself.
The best thing about being a wordsmith: Finding the rhythm and beat in a sentence.